TRAVERSE CITY — When George Hinchliffe first heard a recording of Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders, one of Britain's most popular bands in the 1930s and '40s, he was drawn more to the sharkskin drums than to the ukulele.
Years later, Hinchliffe rediscovered the ukulele and went on to found The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
"We were looking on the uke as uncharted territory rather than thinking we would play Hawaiian music," said Hinchliffe, musical director of the eight-member group that blends humor and musicianship for a sort of ukulele version of the Canadian Brass.
The orchestra formed in 1985 as "a bit of fun," but the first gig was an instant sell-out. Now the group is something of a national institution, having played everywhere from Royal Albert Hall and the BBC to films, plays and commercials. With 10 recordings and two DVDs to its name, the orchestra is set to release another of each — a DVD of a concert at the Sydney Opera House and a CD of German songs and music — before Christmas, Hinchliffe said.
The group performs at the City Opera House, its first stop on a new U.S. tour, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13. Its unlikely playlist of greatest hits includes classical, rock, jazz, country and "British light" music, along with tunes that "defy classification," Hinchliffe said.
As fun to watch as it is to listen to, the irreverent orchestra sits in chamber group format dressed in formal evening wear. Musicians strum, pluck, sing and whistle, using the limitations of the ukulele to highlight "both the beauty and vacuity of popular and highbrow music," from "the pompous and the trivial" to "the moving and the amusing."
"The British do a really good job of entertaining with humor, but not making it slapstick," said Tom Allard of Traverse City.
A self-taught ukulele player who saw the group in Detroit, Allard is a pilot who travels all over the world to participate in ukulele festivals. He said the orchestra's appeal comes down to the ukulele itself.
"Size doesn't matter," Allard said. "If you play the uke, you have a passion for this little instrument."
Over the last 25 years, the Ukes have spawned hundreds of imitators and seen a resurgence of the four-string ukulele from a toy or novelty played by the likes of Tiny Tim to an instrument highly regarded by guitarists including James Hill.
"When we first started, there were far fewer people playing the ukulele," Hinchliffe said. "Now there are a lot more manufacturers involved, a lot more people doing social music-making. Everywhere you go, there are a lot of ukulele enthusiasts and clubs."
A "sizable minority" of the orchestra's audiences are uke players who, afterwards, want to discuss everything from the group's tuning to its instrument pegs, he said.
Zamar Guitar owner Dave Eickenroth said his Traverse City store sells about 50 ukuleles every summer, in part because of their affordability and portability and in part because of globally famous uke musicians on the Internet and YouTube.
"They've gotten really popular in the last couple years," Eikenroth said.
The soprano, concert, tenor and baritone instruments can sell for anywhere from $69.95 and under to $1,000.
"You have to go online and look up a guy called Jake Shimabukuro," he added. "That's one reason right there."
The ukulele is a descendant of the guitar, having been brought to Hawaii in the 1870s by Portuguese immigrants in the form of a little four-string Madeiran guitar, according to historian John King. It was first documented on the mainland at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where it was used by a quartet of Hawaiian singers at the Kïlauea Cyclorama exhibit.
Now the instrument is mainstream enough to be featured at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall, where the Ukes make a return appearance next Wednesday.
Tickets for their Traverse City performance are $25 and $40 for adults and $15 for youth. For more information, visit cityoperahouse.org.